Coping with Current: How to Fish Nymphs in Slow, Medium, and Fast Water

Exploring new streams is one of the most exciting aspects of fly fishing. Every run, pool, and riffle presents a new puzzle that must be pieced together in order to find the fish and catch them. And while there are many stream factors that should inform your rig choices, fly selections, and presentations, the current speed is perhaps most important.

Depending on the strength and speed of the current, your flies will either sink quickly or get whisked along the surface. Since trout hold near the bottom, regardless of current speed, adapting your rigs and flies so they get down into the strike zone quickly is essential.

Luckily, the nymph rigs and techniques we’ve covered so far in this series are incredibly adjustable and most can be adapted to fish any current speed and water depth. A little weight here, a little extra leader length here and you’ll be on your way to catching fish on any river!

Fishing Nymphs in Fast Current

Many new anglers avoid extra-fast rivers, but this is a mistake. There might be a learning curve for casting and the line management needed to keep up with fast drifts and hard-to-feel strikes, but if you stick with it, you’ll find lots of trout action in high-speed currents.

Getting flies to sink quickly is the biggest challenge of fishing fast water. To send your flies down and fast as soon as they hit the water, here are some tips to try:

  • Add more weight. You might need to add a lot more weight to your leader than you think. If you’re using splitshot, start with a few BB-sized shot, then make a few casts. Keep adding split shot until you bump the bottom. Don’t get too upset if you get snagged ? use one less split shot and fish with confidence knowing your flies are on the bottom.
  • Lengthen your leader. Assuming you’re using a floating fly line to fish nymphs, the further you can get your flies away from the line the better. So if you’re fishing a standard 9-foot leader and not getting deep enough, adding several feet of tippet or butt material can be invaluable. Leaders of 15-feet or more are occasionally needed to help those flies sink with less pull from the buoyant fly line.
  • Use long lengths of level tippet rather than standard tapered leaders. When nymphing, it’s very beneficial to build your own leaders. Not only does this allow you to more easily adapt to river conditions, level tippet generally slices through the water faster than tapered leaders.
  • Give your flies plenty of runway. If you want to target a particular piece of structure, you can’t just cast straight at it ? you need to cast upstream far enough that the flies get down to the proper level by the time they reach your target. In fast water, your flies simply need a longer runway to sink ? cast farther upstream!

Fishing Nymphs in Medium Current

Moderately paced streams are what we hope all trout streams are like. You know, nice, even-keeled rivers with riffle after riffle and the occasional deeper pool where the real big ones lurk.

While you do need to pay attention to what the current’s doing in a medium-speed river, your rig adjustments don’t need to be as drastic. In fact, without being burdened by fast currents, your options for rig styles, fly selection, and presentations increase greatly. You can pretty much fish however you want.

That said, there are some things you’ll need to think about to catch fish in medium current speeds:

  • Focus more energy on drag-free presentations. Sometimes you can get away with a lot of drag on your flies in super fast water. But trout in leisurely medium current speeds will be more privy to the drag that comes from a fraudulent offering. Continue making small adjustments to things like your cast placement and line mending until everything “clicks.”
high stick nymphing
high stick nymphing
  • Focus on riffles. Some of the most productive riffles will be found in medium speed currents where the perfect blend of oxygenated water, the cover of a broken water’s surface, and abundant insect life takes place. Most riffles will only be 1 to 3 feet deep, and in moderate currents, the general rule of setting your strike indicator 1 1/2 times the depth of the water is good advice.
  • Incorporate emerger flies into your rigs. Riffles are often hot spots for insect hatches. And in case you happen to be in the right place at the right time, why not tie on an emerger fly in the upper position of your nymph rig?

Nymphing Slow-Moving Rivers and Creeks

Some streams are slow all the time, some slow down seasonally. While you don’t have to worry about getting your flies to sink in slow currents, “frog water” comes with its own unique challenges you must address through your leader setup and fly selection.

  • Fly selection is more important in slow waters. Trout in slow water simply have more time to look at your fly as it passes, so you need to match the naturals as close as possible. If you’re not sure what trout are keyed into, turn over a few rocks in the stream to see what’s on the menu. Try to match the color, sheen, and body profile of the live nymphs as best you can. But perhaps more importantly, try to get the size right ? to a well-educated trout, a fly that’s too big or too small is a dead giveaway.
  • Lengthen your leader. Many times, slow current and crystal clear water go hand in hand. Getting the fish to see your fly before they ever detect your presence is key. To greatly reduce the risk of spooking fish, increase the length of your leader to as long as you’re comfortable casting. If your leader is too short, the heavy fly line landing on the water will send those trout fleeing for cover. Again, put as much distance between your fly and the fly line as possible.
  • Fish scuds, sow bugs, or other freshwater crustaceans. Many times, slow-moving waters either flow into or pour out of a lake or a pond. The still waters they connect to are often very fertile and booming with insects ? particularly freshwater crustaceans like scuds. If you find yourself on a stream like this, tie on a crustacean-imitating fly pattern and see what bites.

Get Your Rig Dialed In Then Focus on the Fishing

Adjusting your rigs to beat the current and get your flies into the strike zone is important, but it’s only one link in the chain. To catch fish, you need to use that well-balanced, perfectly adjusted leader to put your flies in the fish’s face. Make a few casts to ensure your flies are getting deep enough, and then shift your attention to where you cast and how often you mend. Set the hook at any sign of a strike. Fish on!

Sources and More Reading

Learn how to use these techniques to catch brook trout in this awesome article. How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout.

What to find the perfect fly rod for nymph fishing? Read about the Best Nymphing Rod, Reel and Line.

Want to learn how to increase your odds of catching a trout? Read this article that basically doubles your odds of hooking a fish. Tie on a Dry Fly and a Dropper.

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